Movie Musings: Remembering ‘Mars Attacks,’ 20 years later

The year: 1996.

One day, a strange-looking species of extra-terrestrials, descended from the heavens, and quickly laid waste to our planet. Humanity attempted to fight back, but even their strongest weapons proved to be of no use. And then, in a moment of sheer absurdity, a secret weapon was found. The most unexpected thing of all, managed to take down the alien scum, and save the human race.

No, its not Independence Day. It’s Mars Attacks!

After a Summer dominated by Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s Patriotic alien invasion film, Winter found director Tim Burton, attempting to do his own thing with aliens. Burton had provided Warner Brothers with hits such as Beetlejuice and Batman, and to them, it probably seemed a no-brainer, to allow Tim to


Nothing “Topps” Nostalgia

Tim Burton has often looked to the past for some of his artistic inspiration, and that was just whaat he did with Mars Attacks.

While some of it’s sensibilities would link it to the ‘invaders from space’ films like Earth vs The Flying Saucers, the bulk of it’s inspiration, would come from…bubble-gum cards?

The Topps Company released the Mars Attacks card series in 1962, depicting a number of skull-faced, big-brained invaders from Mars, destroying cities, vaporizing animals, and plenty more un-pc machinations.


Keep in mind of course, that these images were on bubble-gum cards, geared towards kids!

The subject matter caused an outcry, and the cards were quickly discontinued…however, the memory of their imagery lingered, and many of the materials based on them (due to their limited run), became collector’s items in later years.

As those children became adults, Topps reprinted some of the cards, and quickly found adult collectors eager for more.

The 1996 film that Burton made, brought about a larger resurgence in the Mars Attacks property. Along with film-based material, a newer interpretation of the aliens were created by Topps, and new cards and comic books were produced, along with figures, and crossovers with other comics series (such as Judge Dredd, and…Transformers!?).


A (Monster) Mash-up of Genres

Of course, one can’t just spend 1 1/2 hours showing aliens blowing up stuff on the big screen. Mars Attacks needed a story to tie together the carnage. But where was one to turn for story inspiration?

How about, the films of Irwin Allen?

In the 1970’s, Allen gained notable fame for bringing together large casts of name-actors, and thrusting them into the center of major disasters. Out of this filmmaking came hits like The Poiseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, and many more.


An example of the film’s big-name cast. From Left to Right: Brian Haley, Pierce Brosnan, Jack Nicholson, Natalie Portman, Glenn Close, Martin Short, Rod Steiger

That seems to be what was put together for Mars Attacks, though word was, the film was going to be bigger than what it eventually became. Originally, the martian attack would have taken place around the globe, and involved a lead cast, of over 5 dozen characters! The original script would even be tagged with a budget of $260 million (which was enormous by 90’s standards!).

Story and Screenwriter Jonathan Gems, credited Burton (who was not given a writing credit) for honing in the story, focusing it solely in the United States, and paring down the characters, to a ‘measly’ 23 leads.

There are even a few jabs at that greatest of all war-time comedies, Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.  This is evident in one of the alien’s translated words meaning ‘bodily fluids,’ and President Dale having an elaborate War Room. Plus, much like how actor Peter Sellers played several roles in Strangelove, Jack Nicholson does the same in Attacks, playing straight-laced President James Dale, and sleazy Vegas developer, Art Land.

The production design also plays around with the time-period. Though it is meant to be modern-day America, many of the settings we see are decidedly retro. The scenes in Kansas definitely feel like Richie Norris (Lukas Haas) and his family, are stuck in a time-warp, and whenever we see Police officers or Military personnel, their uniforms and vehicles are decidedly retro.


Burton has dabbled in combining generational stylings in other films, such as Edward Scissorhands, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. With Mars Attacks, it feels like he really opened the door wide, with several decades worth of inspirational imagery.


Character Caricatures

Just like those Irwin Allen films, Mars Attacks’ advertising boasted a veritable who’s-who of casting. Such big names included Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, and…Tom Jones!?

The film also has some fun with its character types, with Paul Winfield playing the low-key General Casey, who would act as counterpoint to the more bombastic General Decker, played with over-the-top zeal by Rod Steiger.

Along with the more seasoned actors, the film also brought on some young blood, with Natalie Portman portraying Presidential Daughter Taffy Dale. There was also Lukas Haas as Richie Norris, the young man stuck in the middle-of-nowhere America (aka Kansas), with his trailer park family (played by Joe Don Baker, O-Lan Jones, and Jack Black).

One actor who I remember being surprised to see again, was Sylvia Sidney. First introduced to me as the Maitland’s caseworker Juno in Beetlejuice, Sidney plays the senile Grandma Norris, who ends up finding the secret weapon to saving the human race. She also gets one of the best lines in the film.


“They blew up Congress!”

The film would be Sidney’s last film appearance, as she would pass away in 1999.


Pushing into the Digital Frontier

Tim Burton has often had a strong affinity for the effects and animation work of the past.

When it came to pulling off the craziness of faces contorting in a grotesque fashion, or bringing his twisted Christmas fables to life, he often opted for stop-motion puppetry.

Burton was all set to do the same with Mars Attacks, but that plan quickly fell by the wayside, as Warner Brothers wrestled with keeping the film’s budget under control.

The solution, was to have the full-motion martians realized in the same way as Steven Spielberg Jurassic Park dinosaurs: with an assist from Lucasfilm’s visual effects company, industrial Light and Magic.

Though it may be seen as a travesty to some, I still like what ILM brought to the table. Making the martians digital creatures, can be seen as another stepping-stone in their development of the technology (they had already started doing ‘character animation with the films Casper, and Dragonheart).


Creating the martians in the computer, allowed them to be rendered with reflections and lighting, to make them actually seem a part of the real-life scenery. Of course, the animators also added some ‘staccato’ movements, giving the characters a hint of their stop-motion ‘heritage.’

Of course, ILM can’t take all the effects credit for the film. Warner Brothers also added an assist, with their in-company group, Warner Digital Studios. WDS became responsible for the brunt of the global destruction in the film, as well as the myriad shots of the flying saucers, and death ray blasts.

It is fun to also see the filmmaking toe the line between advanced effects, and some that are meant to reference older films. Some shots are simple ones, where the camera doesn’t move, much like how a number of effects were achieved in older days. Plus, some animation cycles of the martians, are re-used multiple times.


Of course, sometimes the real stuff is always good for a film. The filmmakers even used a real-life disaster, as destruction footage in the film. In 1995, The Landmark Hotel and Casino was destroyed by controlled demolition in Las Vegas. Footage of the event was captured and repurposed for the film, when the Martians destroy Art Land’s casino.


In Conclusion

Sadly, in 1996, there was only room in America’s hearts for one alien invasion film…and that honor of most-beloved, civilization-destroying feel-good film, fell upon Independence Day.

Mars Attacks didn’t come close to making ID4′s box-office take, failing to fully recoup its budget and marketing costs.

Both films did share a multi-part story about an alien invasion, but whereas Emmerich’s film used coincidence and numerous references to Star Wars, Burton’s vision was a bit of a downer. Some claimed the film was WB’s attempts to ride ID4’s coattails, but in truth, the film had been in development before Emmerich ever pitched his film idea to Twentieth Century Fox.

It’s dark comedy tone may also have turned away a number of people. There wasn’t anyone quite as charismatic as Will Smith in the film, and a large portion of the all-star cast, would find themselves turned into colored skeletons (or disintegrated) by the martian weaponry.


Even the Martians’ end-game was never discussed. At the most, it seemed like they were little more than bored teenagers, and just decided to invade the Earth for kicks and giggles.

The film could also be considered ‘cruel’ by today’s standards, as just like in one of the Topps cards, Burton decimates a few animals (the First Lady even lobs the skull of the deceased family dog, at a martian intruder!).

I will admit that I don’t hold Mars Attacks up as a true Burton masterpiece, but it is a film that shows his sensibilities, and love for both the Topps cards the film is based off of, and a film that attempts to revel in the irreverence of the 1950’s B-movies, and the disaster films of the 1970’s.

Plus, one of the more fun moments, is Jack Nicholson’s speech, given to the Martian Leader. It isn’t as well-remembered as Bill Pullman’s from ID4, but the timbre and the accompanying music, make it quite entertaining to hear.


“Why can’t we all just…get along?”

My (personal) fondness for the film, also ties into my high school days of marching band. It was my band director who helped ‘introduce’ me to Danny Elfman’s music, and opened my eyes further to who/what Tim Burton was (putting to rest a lot of the strangeness that seemed frightening to my suburban-raised mind).

I recall picking up the soundtrack to Mars Attacks in the winter of 1996, and loaning it to my director to listen to (at first, he didn’t even think Elfman had done the music for the film!). Less than a year later, we were playing the film’s theme as part of our Marching Band’s Danny Elfman-themed show (Music for a Darkened Theater, Vol 3). Our director even went all-out, costuming one of our band members as the Martian Leader, who ‘vaporized’ several members of the band as the song played (my sister ended up being tagged as one of the ‘victims,’ collapsing to the ground in a vaporizing puff of ‘flour’).

It almost feels like the 1990’s were the perfect ‘breeding ground’ for such a picture. If the film had been made in the early 2000’s, it probably would have seen it’s subject matter depicted in a ‘heavier’ way, much like how Steven Spielberg re-imagined H.G. Wells’  The War of the Worlds, in a post 9/11 world. If anything, a post 9/11 Mars Attacks, would probably have been less faithful to the Topps cards, and treated more as a realistic war film.

As it stands now, it is one of a number of those 90’s films, that definitely feels like a product of it’s time.


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About MWH1980

Growing up in the state of Iowa, one would assume I'd be enamored with pigs and corn. Well, I wasn't. Instead, I grew fascinated by many things that were entertainment-related. Things like movies, animation, toys, books, and many more kept my attention. This blog I hope to use to express myself regarding my varied obsessions. (P.S. There's no Photoshop involved in that Gravatar-I really am holding an Oscar)

One response to “Movie Musings: Remembering ‘Mars Attacks,’ 20 years later”

  1. Wasserball says :

    I love that movie even as the aliens made me scared as I watched it for the first time^^; But there are so many actors I didn’t even noticed by seeing it just once that I had to watch it again^^ It is one of the best movies that is a good mix of science fiction and comedy


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